An Abundance of “Exotics”
Looking at the foods sold in markets and served in homes across China today, it is easy to find many “foreign” or “exotic” vegetables. And, interestingly, most originally came to these markets and dinner plates via the northwest.
In 1578, Li Shizhen, the author of Chinese medical book Bencaogangmu, or Thecompendiumof Materiamedica , wrote, “The cucumber, originated near India. The explorer and imperial envoy Zhang Qian collected some seeds of cucumber from Western Regions, hence it was initially named ‘ hu-gua’”.
It is not only the foods themselves that have a rich and important history in China. It is also the spices, the variety and intensity of which are integral in Chinese cuisine today. Chinese onions, garlic, and ginger are three of the most commonly used plants to flavor Chinese dishes; in fact, most Chinese meat or vegetable dishes are nothing without their strategic —and often generous—use. Despite this contemporary importance, all had to at one point be shared— traded—to become part of the Chinese dinner plate. Zhang Qian, the interminable force behind the development of the Silk Road and the same man who introduced to China the cucumber, also introduced many “hu” spices, such as shallot (“hu-cong”), garlic (“hu- suan”), and coriander (“hu- sui”), along with many others. Pepper and fennel, also once unknown to Chinese cuisine, were introduced from western parts of the continent.
Vegetables, spices, garnishes, and grains entered China through the Silk Road. These foods changed everything for China, but there was also another important commodity that would change the course of China’s cuisine: cooking oil. Historically, the people of the Central Plain would use the fat from pigs, cattle and goats as a source of butter, lard, and also oil. As their local seed crops lacked substantial oil, with the eventual introduction of two oil-rich seeds, sesame and then rapeseed, everything changed.
Sesame originated from the southern African grasslands, far from the Central Plain. But these oilpacked seeds managed to make their way north and out of Africa, eventually to the packs of traders plying the trade routes where, according to the formidable Qiminyaoshu, or the Essentialtechniquesforthe Welfareofthepeople , Zhang Qian encountered them in ancient state of Dayuan (in today’s Fergana Valley) and brought them east. Upon its arrival, sesame was quickly seen as a triple blessing, offering culinary opportunities as a garnish, a desert, and as a flavor-rich cooking oil, thereby unseating oils from animal fats as a key cooking ingredient. However, while Zhang Qian’s may be the first commercial introduction of sesame to China, a spattering of wild sesame plants had long been present in the Western Regions, such as Xinjiang’s Turpan Basin. There, ancient sesame hulls have been unearthed near the Alagou cemetery (2,200–2,800 years old), suggesting that this seed had successfully spread across the continent and into the Central Plain prior to his journey. Although Zhang Qian was not technically the first to bring sesame to China, it was only after his later re-introduction that sesame became an economically viable and culinary sought after crop. And sesame reigned until another seed came and, like sesame did to animal fats, uprooted it as the dominant oil.
According to the Compendiumofmateriamedica , along with many other historical records, rapeseed was first domesticated in today’s Gansu and northwest Qinghai, and later introduced to the Central Plain. At first rapeseed was not used at all for its seeds, but rather for its foliage; it was consumed as a vegetable. It is not until much later, during the Tang Dynasty, that records show rapeseed being used as a source of oil. Today, rapeseed is a key economic crop and used more for general cooking than sesame, particularly in the southwestern provinces. There, during the flowering season fields in bloom paint a gorgeous cascade of yellow across the land, providing not only a beautiful pastoral scene but importantly those rich, oil packed seeds that have helped change Chinese cuisine.
If the travel of vegetables, spices and seeds across the continent was important in forming modern China, fruit could be said to have been revolutionary. In total, more fruits than vegetables have crossed the geographical gap and become a part of China’s “foreign foods”. Among them was the grape.
Grapes, in Chinese called “pu-tao” (葡萄), are native to various places throughout the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, particularly the region between the Caspian Sea and the southern shores of the Black Sea, near today’s Georgia. They are today the most widely cultivated fruit crop in the world.
Leaving their Mediterranean home, grapes followed trade routes and the Silk Road until they eventually ended up in the Central Plain, and then flooded—almost literally—into the rest of China. And with these grapes came something particularly special: wine.
The Recordsofthegrandhistorian emphasized the longevity of wine: “Countries in Western Regions and the surrounding areas use a spirit from grapes called wine, rich wine of tens of thousands of dan (an ancient unit of measure, roughly equal to 30 kilograms) that will for decades not become rancid”. In China, archaeological evidence of grape vineyards in Xinjiang dated back as the Han and Jin dynasties, and this was expected to be the earliest accounts of grapes, and wine, in China. But in 2003, a 1.15 meters long grape vine specimen was found in the Turpan in a forgotten ancient cemetery called Yanghai. Exciting historians, the specimen was much older than those Han and Jin era accounts—estimates put them closer to 2,500 years old—making it, and therefore grape cultivation an ancient practice in Chinese history, much more ancient than expected.
The grapes were taken to the Central Plain from Western Regions by the hands of the same man who brought the vegetables, spices, fruits, grains and oils to China: Zhang Qian. But the history here is muddy, and some suggest he may not have actually been the one to introduce grapes to the Central Plain. Recounted briefly in the Essentialtechniquesfor thewelfareofthepeople , grapes may have already been in the Central Plain before he made his journey, stating: “…the return of wine grapes to the region is not necessarily due to Zhang himself ”. Moreover, Han Dynasty-era literary works, pre-dating Zhang Qian’s travels, have many instances of the word
more a sour drink, like a soured buttermilk-yoghurt cross. True cheese was brought into China’s Central Plain from the northern nomadic people. And once it arrived, the once cheese-less people were enamored.
Under such circumstances, the Essentialtechniquesforthewelfareofthepeople adds goats as one of the primary source of meat for Central Plain people, while in another chapter there are specific technical points on how to turn their milk into various cheeses. This information clearly came from the accumulated knowledge of many generations of the nomadic people, and their experiences are regarded as key contributors to the introduction of cheese in the Chinese diet and culture.
Along with milk, buttermilk, yoghurt, and cheese, “hu-bing” (胡饼), a type of flat wheat-bread was another important introduced food from the nomads. Though most of the world subsists on bread, it was only two or three hundred years ago that the idea came to China. Interestingly, still today the Chinese word used to describe most bread products is “bing” (饼); however, this is not the same as the word implies, and only a rare few “bing” products are flatbread-like in any manner. But, during the Han Dynasty, all known
and meals, namely the “separate dining”. However the northern nomadic people tended to bake or cook whole sheep or deer in larger containers. After such dining custom was introduced to Central Plain, the appearance of these larger, more complex meals required the culinary techniques and dining custom of this region to be changed. A simple stool, called a “hu-chuang” (胡床)—perhaps the first non-edible “hu” series item—were rudimentary foldable stools, that also from the Western Regions. They allowed people to sit at tables, and their ease of use and transport, and comfort, eventually led to the evaporation of the kneeling tradition. There was also a need for larger serving trays, leading eventually to the “mo-pan” (貊盘), a more robust plate that could hold these larger, more complex meat dishes. This was important not that in it was a sizeable increase in serving plate size, but it made the plates themselves the center of the meal, not something that could be passed from person to person and instead forcing everyone to come to the food; in effect, it made meals communal around a single, central table. To this day, the culture of sitting around a large table with the shared dishes before you is a hallmark of a “Chinese dinner”. Today millions of households take part in a culinary custom that was brought to the Central Plain simply because of a folding stool and a few new types of foods. It is a testament to the connection of trade and culture.
The opening of China to trade not only allowed the exchange of goods— edible and inedible—but also changed cultures; staple foods changed, culinary traditions changed, and so too did, eventually, the way people ate. The Chinese dinner table today is overflowing with dishes made with introduced foods, vegetables, spices, garnishes, fruits, breads, oils and grains that had to make their way along tortuous trade routes to their new home. And once they arrived, they changed Chinese culture forever.